Review: An Informal History of the Hugos, by Jo Walton

Russ Allbery eagle at
Sat Feb 25 21:20:11 PST 2023

An Informal History of the Hugos
by Jo Walton

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: August 2018
ISBN:      1-4668-6573-3
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     564

An Informal History of the Hugos is another collection of Jo Walton's posts. As with What Makes This Book So Great, these are blog
posts that are still available for free on-line. Unlike that
collection, this series happened after got better at tags, so
it's much easier to find. Whether to buy it therefore depends on
whether having it in convenient book form is worth it to you.

Walton's previous collection was a somewhat random assortment of
reviews of whatever book she felt like reviewing. As you may guess from
the title, this one is more structured. She starts at the first year
that the Hugo Awards were given out (1953) and discusses the winners
for each year up through 2000. Nearly all of that discussion is about
the best novel Hugo, a survey of other good books for that year, and,
when other awards (Nebula, Locus, etc.) start up, comparing them to the
winners and nominees of other awards. One of the goals of each
discussion is to decide whether the Hugo nominees did a good job of
capturing the best books of the year and the general feel of the genre
at that time.

There are a lot of pages in this book, but that's partly because
there's a lot of filler. Each post includes all of the winners and
(once a nomination system starts) nominees in every Hugo category.
Walton offers an in-depth discussion of the novel in every year, and an
in-depth discussion of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer
(technically not a Hugo but awarded with them and voted on in the same
way) once those start. Everything else gets a few sentences at most, so
it's mostly just lists, all of which you can readily find elsewhere if
you cared. Personally, I would have omitted categories without
commentary when this was edited into book form.

Two other things are included in this book. Most helpfully, Walton's reviews of novels in the shortlist are included after the
discussion of that year. If you like Walton's reviews, this is great
for all the reasons that What Makes This Book So Great was so much fun.
Walton has a way of talking about books with infectious enthusiasm,
brief but insightful technical analysis, and a great deal of genre
context without belaboring any one point. They're concise and readable
and never outlast my attention span, and I wish I could write reviews
half as well.

The other inclusion is a selection of the comments from the original
blog posts. When these posts originally ran, they turned into a
community discussion of the corresponding year of SF, and Tor included
a selection of those comments in the book. Full disclosure: one of
those comments is mine, about the way that cyberpunk latched on to some
incorrect ideas of how computers work and made them genre conventions
to such a degree that most cyberpunk takes place in a parallel universe
with very different computer technology. (I suppose that technically
makes me a published author to the tune of a couple of pages.) While I
still largely agree with the comment, I blamed Neuromancer for this at
the time, and embarrassingly discovered when re-reading it that I had
been unfair. This is why one should never express opinions in public
where someone might record them.

Anyway, there is a general selection of comments from random people,
but the vast majority of the comments are discussions of the year's
short fiction by Rich Horton and Gardner Dozois. I understand why this
was included; Walton doesn't talk about the short fiction, Dozois was a
legendary SF short fiction editor and multiple Hugo winner, and both
Horton and Dozois reviewed short fiction for Locus. But they don't
attempt reviews. For nearly all stories under discussion, unless you
recognized the title, you would have no idea even what sub-genre it was
in. It's just a sequence of assertions about which title or author was

Given that there are (in most years) three short fiction categories to
the one novel category and both Horton and Dozois write about each
category, I suspect there are more words in this book from Horton and
Dozois than Walton. That's a problem when those comments turn into
tedious catalogs.

Reviewing short fiction, particularly short stories, is inherently
difficult. I've tried to do a lot of that myself, and it's tricky to
find something useful to say that doesn't spoil the story. And to be
fair to Horton and Dozois, they weren't being paid to write reviews;
they were just commenting on blog posts as part of a community
conversation, and I doubt anyone thought this would turn into a book.
But when read as a book, their inclusion in this form wasn't my
favorite editorial decision.

This is therefore a collection of Walton's commentary on the selections
for best novel and best new writer alongside a whole lot of boring
lists. In theory, the padding shouldn't matter; one can skip over it
and just read Walton's parts, and that's still lots of material. But
Walton's discussion of the best novels of the year also tends to turn
into long lists of books with no commentary (particularly once the
very-long Locus recommended list starts appearing), adding to the
tedium. This collection requires a lot of skimming.

I enjoyed this series of blog posts when they were first published, but
even at the time I skimmed the short fiction comments. Gathered in book
form with this light of editing, I think it was less successful. If you
are curious about the history of science fiction awards and never read
the original posts, you may enjoy this, but I would rather have read
another collection of straight reviews.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2023-02-25


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

More information about the book-reviews mailing list